April 15 Letter from Dr. Wade to the Board: Update on COVID-19 Impact

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NOTE: Superintendent Dr. Nicolas D. Wade submitted the following letter to the District 401 Board of Education on April 15, 2020. To translate the letter into a foreign language, go to the top right corner of this page where the Google Translate button (titled "Select Language") is located, and choose from the menu of available languages. Links to all of Dr. Wade's letters and other COVID-19 communications can be found at our Update Center.


To: Elmwood Park CUSD 401 Board of Education
Re: Impact of COVID-19

Elmwood Park CUSD 401 was proactive in its preparation for altering the learning environment and operations due to the then increasing seriousness of COVID-19. The District continues to provide remote learning experiences for its students and guidance to all of its stakeholders as we all continue to navigate the immediate consequences of the pandemic and plan for its aftermath. While remote learning can never truly fully replace a physical learning experience, the District continues to be proud of what it has been able to offer and of our communication efforts, especially when compared to others throughout the Chicagoland area.

While it most certainly seems that remote learning is how the District will conclude its 2019-20 school year, the District Office has been actively planning to prepare for the 2020-21 school year in three different scenarios:

  1. The 2020-21 school year will begin with face-to-face instruction.
  2. The 2020-21 school year will begin with remote learning.
  3. The 2020-21 school year will see intermittent periods of remote learning and face-to-face instruction.

As of writing this letter, there is still a lot we do not know, and as active as we all can be in communicating with those who do make the final decisions, we do not know concretely what the "new normal" will be like operationally and in learning. Here are just a few questions or scenarios to ponder:

  1. Does remote learning become a sort of "school choice" for parents akin to homeschooling, except the District now has to provide the curriculum materials, the device(s) and virtual instruction?
  2. Will services the School District contracts out, such as transportation, still be available come the start of the school year? This would be a result of such companies being unable to remain open during this time due to the cost of doing so being too exorbitant compared to weathering it out.
  3. If face-to-face instruction resumes, will the District have to perform temperature checks to simultaneously address community health concerns and liability? And then who performs these temperature checks on staff and students and who determines who is able to enter? If a student is denied entry due to having a temperature above 98.6 degrees, does the District automatically have to provide remote learning for that day? If it is a staff member, the District would have to procure a substitute (who also clears the temperature check) and dock that individual a sick day. And is this something that is sustainable day in and day out?
  4. If there are still limitations to a specific number of people entering a particular area, how does this affect extracurricular activities, school and District events, and class sizes? If it is the latter, how does this alter the school day, school calendar and the overall learning environment? Are there athletic practices and competitions with no spectators or even a limited number of participants?
  5. Will the supply chain of necessary medical and cleaning supplies become more available than what it currently is as a result of limited (and coordinated) national production, tariffs and trade with countries who could potentially still be embattled with the current health crisis? Currently, we are labeled essential (to some degree), but that does not mean there is a priority for schools to purchase medical and cleaning supplies over everyone else.

I clearly have not listed out everything that is being, could be or should be considered, but the above items' responses, solutions and/or appropriate commentary have layers of complexities in operations, learning experiences, collective bargaining agreements, the School Code, finances and, finally, ethics.

The financial impact of COVID-19 on school systems is not yet clearly defined, but it is reasonable to assume there will be an impact for FY21 that will continue to be compounded thereafter. For context, Illinois lost over 5 percent in revenue in 2001's recession and lost 11 percent during The Great Recession beginning in 2008. Here are some scenarios or potential factors that could further complicate revenue:

  1. It is estimated that one in three homeowners will not pay their first property tax installment. It is a county, not a state, decision to defer property tax payments. It is being conveyed that counties throughout Illinois are discussing whether or not to defer property tax payments (at no penalty to homeowners) and for how long (anywhere between one to six months has been bandied about). This is not even getting into the number of homeowners who may miss a minimum of one mortgage payment and the same goes with renters.
  2. If there is deferment in property tax payments, how will schools manage cash flow? Will banks see schools as viable institutions to lend money to, even interest free (if available), if local and state revenue is questionable (at best)? Could these uncertain times motivate the state legislature to pursue a property tax freeze (permanent or temporary)?
  3. It is being reported that half of small businesses throughout the country are not paying April's rent.
  4. It is being consistently reported that unemployment will continue to increase and potentially reach or surpass levels not seen since The Great Depression.
  5. Will Governor Pritzker's budget even see the reality of an increase to K-12 funding, regardless of the fate of the graduated income tax in November? Will the state's budget even be able to keep the integrity of the evidence-based funding model intact? As a result of the changing economy and its varied impact on each school district, will each school district's tier designation for adequacy be recalculated?
  6. What happens to the Consumer Price Index (CPI)?
  7. What happens if Illinois becomes the first state in the nation's history to have junk bond status, and how does that affect the District's ability to realize the expectations of the recently approved referendum?
  8. And, "simply," what about the pension system and its impact on the many items mentioned above?

The District has been in a good financial situation recently and has reserves. However, reserves are meant to be dipped into for emergencies or for specific "one time" reasons. It cannot sustain multiple years of a loss of revenue. The District Office believes it can address the issues facing FY21, but it wants to stress that if the financial picture, as it becomes clearer, strongly suggests more intensive reductions, it would require a reevaluation of its operations from top to bottom and priorities. In short, this could become a recurring topic through the 2020-21 school year.

The District Office continues to believe that the community supported the District and in its efforts to realize a successful referendum due to its improvements in and the results from the learning environment and the opportunities afforded to students. The District Office wants to do its best to continue acknowledging that, especially if it will have to develop ways to reduce expenditures and prioritize.

The District Office is taking steps to not fill positions that are seen to be a "wish." This includes adding campus monitors at the elementary buildings or adding an additional school resource officer at the middle school. The District Office knows what positions it needs to fill for next year and will do so. The District Office is looking at scaling back facility enhancements that have not already been approved for FY21 in an effort to address any sizable loss in revenue. To be clear, the District Office believes it cannot halt projects forever, but will temporarily freeze them until a clearer financial picture is realized. The more extensive financial outlook will have us reevaluating everything we are as a District, and the District Office will be making, if needed, targeted decisions to reduce expenditures as opposed to having "blanket cuts at 'x' percent."

For the 2020-21 school year, the District will continue to move forward with full-day kindergarten, grade 6 moving over to the middle school, standards-based grading in grades K-5, and having College & Career Pathways. I am making a recommendation for the Board to amend the 2020-21 school calendar to push back the start of the school year to allow for additional time to complete the capital project at Elm Middle School and to organize operationally. The District Office knows it will still offer a Summer Academy experience, but is determining whether to push it back to July to allow a chance for face-to-face or to have it in June and remotely. And the District Office is also looking to realize the District goal in having all students in grades K-12 with a take home-device with the approval of the Chromebook leasing agreements (out of Title funds) this evening.

It should not be underestimated how extensive the new normal will be in the aftermath of COVID-19 academically, socially, operationally and financially. I do want to take this time to thank all of the hard work of our District employees for providing services and learning opportunities to our students and parents and for making the District still function as a cohesive unit overall. I am appreciative of the collaboration and communication of the collective bargaining units' leadership as we all navigate these uncharted waters and of the building and District administration in diversifying ways to keep some semblance of normality in the day-to-day.

In essence, I continue to be proud of how this District has operated and functioned during this time of crisis and of the stakeholders we serve in their response to that. Please do not take this letter (or report) to be comprehensive, but an informational installment in the pursuit of a panoptic overview and its potential long-range response plan.

Sincerely,

Dr. Nicolas D. Wade
Superintendent of Schools


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